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Saturday, December 24, 2011

North Korea: Pain on a Train

With the demise of Kim Jong-il, the author wonders about the future of the people in North Korea. Will the Dear Leader’s death be a fatal blow to the iron-fisted regime, or will the authorities continue in their way? The author expresses hope for the people confined inside the country’s walls.

By Christopher Zimny

When  one reads the brutal story of the justly paranoid Winston Smith, one is confronted soon enough with a telescreen filled with the face of the Stalin-like image of Big Brother. Never ceasing its indelibility, the image fades to the background where it looms, while three phrases instead take its place—the three slogans of the Party:

    WAR IS PEACE
    FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
    IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

These absurd statements, penned in the 20th century, and the totalitarian idea that led to Orwell to pen them, actively survive in only one place on earth today— North Korea. In her 2009 book, Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick makes note of a few propaganda signs that line the unused roads and are plastered ostentatiously on North Korean buildings:

    WE WILL DO WHAT THE PARTY TELLS US.
    WE HAVE NOTHING TO ENVY IN THE WORLD.
    KIM JONG-IL, SUN OF THE 21ST CENTURY.

Overt propaganda in North Korea is not taken as such by the people there; instead, statements like these are not only purported to be, but believed to be, self-evident. Kim Jong-il received ultimate control after the death of his father (who is still, technically, the president of the state) in 1994, and for nearly 20 years this said sun hath shown its awful light. On December 18th, however, it went out; it apparently was not impervious to train rides.

Kim Jong-il, the aberrant, ludic, sadistic creature-despot claiming ownership of every living being between the 38th Parallel and the Chinese border, suffered a heart attack from exhaustion on his way to an area outside the country’s capital, ending his life. Rid of their principle dwarf, North Koreans have the faintest—yet simultaneously the strongest—glimpse of freedom they've had in over 60 years. The state-run media reports that Kim Jong-un—the “Great Successor”—is to step up to the only successful Communist dynastic throne in history; the second handing of the baton, as it were; but perhaps those few secretly apostate souls of the country, who willingly commit thoughtcrime and illegal acts of freedom (such as speaking ill of either the Dear Leader or Great Leader (as Kim Il-sung is there known), or are in possession of unapproved books), will have a chance to see the wretched state disintegrate in their own lifetime. If this doesn’t seem the case on the outset, a somewhat closer look reveals a more positive picture.

The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (as it calls itself), through various measures, has coup-proofed itself by selecting the most loyal supporters to occupy its inner circle. However, now that the Dear Leader—as the middle Kim is called—is dead, struggles over who may fill the power vacuum may indeed be the straw to break this sickly camel’s back. Some say that Kim Jong-un is far too inexperienced and still rather obscure in the eyes of the North Korean people, having only been assigned to be Kim Jong-il’s successor about one year ago—contrasted with the 20 years spent by the eldest Kim preparing his son for the role. If this is indeed the case, Daniel Byman and Jennifer Lind of Harvard Kennedy School point out that a succession may be the only plausible event that could make the regime fall to pieces.

There is, of course, an alternate timeline North Koreans may face—the same road on which Oceania was driven: the inner party effortlessly moving past any troubles and continuing boldly in its drive for power over the individual (for its own sake). It is possible that this handover from capricious father to untried son may succeed in one way or another; if this happens, unless something markedly different changes in our policy toward the government of that country, we may be condemned to watch North Korea for a long time thereafter, while thousands of North Korean defectors and secret dissenters still inside its borders hope, then wait, for something to be done.

These escaped dissenters and quiet renegades have lived or continue to live the life of an average North Korean—a bleak, dreary one, always with an undertone of real perpetual fear. Speaking with citizens of another country on a cell phone (or until recently, even owning a cell phone), for instance, may earn a person a place in front of a firing squad, as will selling DVDs or being repatriated from China, or defacing currency if either Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il’s porcine faces are displayed on the note; these “criminals” also face another fate: being dragged to the country’s notorious prison camps. Some 200,000 human beings are interned and confined in North Korea’s gulags—modern day concentration camps. For a crime one commits, one’s entire family is punished—three generations over, an appealing (and appalling) terror tactic begun by Kim Il-sung.

This says nothing of their abject poverty: The purposeful and ludic currency wrenching done in late 2009 decimated what semblance of a middle-class the people could muster through a somewhat bustling, if still severely stifled, illegal market, and plunged everyone who wasn’t in the capital into acute destitution. Two nuclear tests and the sinking of a South Korean naval ship (leading to a short-lived recantation of the Sunshine Policy by South Korea) have not stopped foreign aid to North Korea. The massive amounts of foreign aid and billions of dollars in imported wealth are used on three things only: the political class, the military, and propaganda—which the regime feeds its starving people in place of food. Indoctrinated children sing praises of their deified leaders, learn “official” history, and are subtly inculcated in every aspect of their schooling—nay their life—to say nothing of their widespread malnourishment, their diseases, or their being stunted both in mind and body (eight-year-old children appear to be three or four, for instance). The average North Korean is six inches shorter than his South Korean neighbor due to lifelong food deprivation.

Such is life in North Korea.

The most deranged aspect of this abhorrent, grotesque picture is that these conditions are preventable. When one sees satellite imagery of the Korean peninsula, the southern half is positively gleaming and China produces its fair share of light—but between the two: nothing. Darkness covers every meter with the exception of the capital city that houses the government and politically loyal: the prop showcase city for foreigners. Once the brutal authoritarian dynasty of dwarfish martinets is brought to an end, as may happen in the near future with Kim Jong-il’s demise, North Koreans will be rid of their chains—and be free at long last. May they finally be free to do as they please and their free market shine in the night like their South Korean brothers and sisters.

We should hope that the death of North Korea’s infallible Dear Leader, fatally exhausted from a train ride, is the beginning of the end for this repugnant regime.

This article was also published in The American Reporter.

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